FaceApp's incredible overnight success gives us a few important lessons

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
FaceApp's incredible overnight success gives us a few important lessons
Unless you've been living under a rock, you have heard about it: FaceApp is the new must-try app sensation! This latest seemingly inconspicuous app uses AI to perform a magic trick (it really is incredibly realistic): it changes your photo so you look younger or older. But along with the fun and laughs, a few people -- us included -- have quickly noticed how the app provides all that fun at the costly price of getting access to your data... and keeping it.

Hidden in the terms and conditions that we all know are always an incredibly popular read (we kid, we kid) is the following outrageous statement:


Wait... what? We get it: "legalese" can sound quite dramatic, but this goes beyond that. "Perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, fully-paid, transferable"... I'd better read that one more time just in case it mentions my kidney somewhere! But no, human organs are thankfully not mentioned.

There is, however, something quite troubling indeed: the privacy statement of the app mentions that it can use your photo along with personal data like a user name and even a real name. At the same time, no details are given about how long the app will store your photos and what are the means for a user to request that their personal data is deleted after it's been used to create that one fun photo. US Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer also noticed and called for regulation citing these practices as "dark patterns" that can mislead users and raise some serious privacy issues. Add to that the simple fact that FaceApp is an app developed in Russia and all sorts of conspiracy theories come to mind, but that is a bit beyond the point here.

The crowd's reaction: more people downloaded the app!

Yep, all those warnings were useless.

What strikes me most about the FaceApp story, however, is not that an app that has unclear terms and conditions has shot up to the top of the Apple and Android app stores. We have Facebook after all, which is much worse.

It is what happened after all those warnings that is particularly interesting. Nobody stopped using the app all of a sudden. Quite the opposite happened: a few million people more downloaded it and uploaded a bunch more photos and a ton more personal data to some server somewhere without getting any guarantees about the way that data will be used.


This reaction of the crowd is revealing: no meaningful number of people would ignore a fun little app. Even for those who knew like myself, I was tempted to try it out: "it's just another whimsical fun little app", or "it can't possibly be that harmful", went my poor attempt of an excuse.

But reading the terms and conditions shows that at best, we have a very poorly written privacy statement, and at worse, we have a privacy risk.

What FaceApp painfully exposes once again is probably the biggest weakness that has helped the likes of Facebook, Google and many others built their advertizing empires, and of government agencies scarily deep databases about citizens of their own and other countries.

Google and Apple have done nothing

Surprised?

So... you would expect that Apple and Google would have some safeguards against such a situation, right?

Well, obviously not. Apple, which manually checks every single application before it enters the App Store, did not seem to have found anything troubling and has not only allowed the app, but has not reacted in any way since news broke about the possible privacy concerns. Google also has not reacted in any way to the threat from an app like FaceApp abusing user data.

And why would they? While both these companies are concerned about user privacy (Apple admittedly a bit more so), it does not seem that we have a nationwide agreement about what constitutes fair data use and what are the checks and balances. And with this, we reach the bigger problem...

User privacy means nothing

Where are the laws protecting our data?


The big problem is that ultimately, user privacy means nothing, unless a new app by a Russian company appears that could be stealing the photos and personal data of US citizens.

It turns out that it is extremely easy to gather the personal data of millions of people: just build a fun app that changes you so you look like a unicorn... or whatever. Unless your app becomes truly viral chances are no one will notice how you use users' data. Or if someone notices, that would usually be a few million private photos too late.

What the current situation reveals is that we need to talk seriously about data security and user privacy. We need to enact strict rules that protect our privacy. Even if this ends up hurting Facebook and Google, and yes, FaceApp too, a bit. I am certain those companies can easily weather such a storm.

But slapping a one-time fine that is less than one of these companies makes in a quarter, will do nothing but convince those big companies they can just continue using and abusing everyone's data.

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20 Comments

1. RoryBreaker

Posts: 208; Member since: Oct 11, 2015

If you used this app (which is a stupid app to begin with) after the revelations, you have no interest in privacy concerns.

2. Godlymansean

Posts: 337; Member since: Apr 14, 2017

What if someone you know already used your face in the app! Cause you could just take any image from your gallery.

9. sgodsell

Posts: 7219; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

Try to think. If that someone you know already has your picture, which I assume you were okay with. Otherwise that someone you know wouldn't have your picture. Then what's stopping them from printing it out, putting it on a telephone pole, saying "Lost, have you seen this idiot". They could post it to Instagram, Facebook, or almost anywhere else. You cannot control the actions of others. Also it's up to users to read the fine print, and license for any app.

12. Feanor

Posts: 1346; Member since: Jun 20, 2012

I think if someone has a picture from you, you may actually not be ok with them using your picture for FaceApp, but I believe in this case there are no metadata associated to you, with only exception that advanced face recognition software can match your picture to your Facebook profile and get to you through this path, but then it's again what you decide to have given up to Facebook. I guess.

23. nodes

Posts: 1158; Member since: Mar 06, 2014

Just don't use the internet or any kind of modern technology and your privacy will be a little more guaranteed.

3. Povea

Posts: 48; Member since: Jul 03, 2015

You can't endear the likes of Google, Facebook and other big American data harvesters and still have the gut to criticise a harmless Russian photo filter, that may only put up your photo on the streets of Crimea or maybe next to Putin in Kremlin.

4. MsPooks

Posts: 77; Member since: Jul 08, 2019

They're being upfront about their terms. Good for them.

5. Vokilam

Posts: 1181; Member since: Mar 15, 2018

Wait, we all use android - and for some reason we’re worried about this all of a sudden. If this worries you (and it should) - you should check out Google’s terms every time you sign up for new gmail, store your photos on google cloud, or use a device with android.

6. miketer

Posts: 514; Member since: Apr 02, 2015

"Unless you've been living under a rock, you have heard about it: FaceApp is the new must-try app sensation!" I'm living under a rock, thank you. I don't want to know about this app.

7. Charlie2k

Posts: 121; Member since: Jan 11, 2016

US is the most racist country In the world. Exactly what have Russia done that makes you so scared and full of hate against an entire nation and its people?

8. AmashAziz

Posts: 2898; Member since: Jun 30, 2014

Well......

10. Blazers

Posts: 734; Member since: Dec 05, 2011

The libs are the Russia haters. Blame them.

11. L0n3n1nja

Posts: 1550; Member since: Jul 12, 2016

Well the government created the propaganda and lie known as the cold war and taught entire generations to fear communism and the Soviet union was painted as an evil threat wanting world domination.

20. darkoman4

Posts: 183; Member since: May 30, 2014

Well they ran out of people to hate and Russians are the only ones left.

13. Leo_MC

Posts: 7218; Member since: Dec 02, 2011

This is the second dumb article I read here on the matter. PA resides in EU - that means it has a dpo; just ask him about this things before you write about them.

14. saddameu

Posts: 11; Member since: Mar 26, 2017

install it, close all internet connections, make your ugly photo, uninstall the app, restore internet conection. Profit???

16. newbey123

Posts: 700; Member since: Mar 19, 2012

lmao, what morons would willingly use a russian app! Russia is not our friend and they are a hostel enemy and attacked our democracy.

17. ullokey

Posts: 177; Member since: Jul 28, 2015

What is a Hostel enemy?

22. TEXASMADE1978

Posts: 2; Member since: Aug 22, 2018

A hotel full of guests who universally hate the US? Lol

19. darkoman4

Posts: 183; Member since: May 30, 2014

Democracy was stolen from you long time ago, but not by Russians.. George Carlin explained this to everyone long time ago

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